MOST FOLK would prefer not to be caught in a crossfire, but the college students, young professionals, tourists and political junkies who start lining up outside George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium around 6 p.m. weekdays clearly anticipate the opportunity.

That's because they'll be the audience for CNN's "Crossfire," the noisy battleground where liberal, conservative -- and perpetually combative -- journalists engage politicians and newsmakers for the entertainment and education of news obsessives everywhere.

Now in its 20th year, "Crossfire" remains one of CNN's consistently high-rated programs, with a nightly audience of 721,000. And since April 1, "Crossfire" has also had a nightly audience of 250 in Morton Auditorium. That's when the show expanded from a half-hour to a full hour and became the only live nightly network show shot in front of a studio audience. The new version begat a major overhaul, with a new set, logo, music and graphics. It moved out of the CNN studios near Union Station to GWU's new Media & Public Affairs Building.

The addition of a live audience "brings an energy level to the set that you don't have in a traditional television studio," says Sam Feist, the show's senior executive producer.

Robert Novak, one of "Crossfire's" hosts, agrees.

"It has almost no resemblance to the old 'Crossfire,' which had an entirely different ambience and atmosphere than this one does," says the syndicated columnist once described as "a strident hard-edged conservative who never talks in anything less than a raised voice." That's made Novak a star on the bickering pundit circuit, but until last year, he never had to play to an audience of anything but peers and politicos.

"Now they want me to play to the audience, put in punch lines, play to applause," Novak says good-naturedly. "It's really quite a difference."

Particularly after the other major change: replacing longtime liberal host Bill Press with Democratic political strategists James Carville and Paul Begala, whom Novak has called "pit bulls."

Carville calls himself "a ham, so I love the audience. I don't have any affection for a TV camera. It doesn't do anything for me, it's just a piece of steel with a lens. I was never a professional television person, but I love to ham it up for people."

All this makes for a perfect meld of politics, television and celebrity. And since tickets are free, that makes "Crossfire" one of the best entertainment values in town.

Audience members don't just provide an applause track to this festival of contrariness, they get to ask questions live on prime-time television. Even better, they get to witness debates that sometimes rage on during commercial and network promotional breaks, and get some up close and personal interaction with the show's hosts.

Though there's no dearth of caustic commentary during the show, some of the funnier exchanges take place off camera. On this particular night, the card is Carville vs. Novak, and as the dapper Novak gets some stray hairs combed into place by a makeup artist, the gleamingly bald Carville harrumphs, "the hair people never have to do a damn thing [for me]. Can I get a coiffeur?"

"Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group" both arrived in 1982. Over the last 20 years, the once-sedate journalist roundtable has transformed, at its most extreme, into a professional wrestling ring where words fly instead of bodies. Commercials for the new "Crossfire" lineup had the hosts donning boxing robes and squaring off as tag-team Beltway pugilists, the Ragin' Cajun and Texas Longhorn Lefty (Carville and Begala) battling the Prince of Darkness and the Bow-Tie Brawler (Novak and Tucker Carlson).

"I anticipate a lot of brawling," says Michael Dempsey, a 22-year-old Bostonian who used to work on Capitol Hill and is here with a group from the Washington Center, which offers internships and academic seminars for students from around the country. "It's not professional wrestling, but I wouldn't call it genuine substance-based political debate, either. I'd call it theatrical politics. It's entertainment based on ratings -- so's politics. And I don't think the hosts are as ideological as they try and come off -- I think it's about entertainment."

"It's a different option," says Matt Kaufmann, a Northern Virginia Community College student and first-time "Crossfire" audience member. "It's not the same old thing -- going out to dinner or going to see a movie. It's coming to hear good debate. And it's nonfiction, which is a lot more interesting."

Indeed, the substance of "Crossfire" is debate over the hot political and social issues affecting America, and this night's program addressed the Bush economic package, North Korea, tax cuts and CBS's plan to reintroduce "The Beverly Hillbillies" sitcom as a reality television series.

Doors open at 6 and folks are asked to be in their seats by 6:30. Carville and Novak, the night's hosts, saunter out 15 minutes early, settling into their familiar positions on the dais -- there's never any guessing who's on the left side and who's on the right. After quizzing the crowd about political affiliations (after a voice vote suggests Republicans outnumber Democrats, Novak needles Carville, "You lose again!"), they do a live tease on "Moneyline," the show that precedes them. The night gets off to a jocular start as both Carville and Novak crack up when a "Moneyline" reporter says prosecutors "want to talk to the broker that serviced Martha Stewart."

The show kicks off with "Crossfire Political Alert," bite-size news summaries vigorously spun left and right.

After that, it's off to the races as the program moves into several fractious segments with Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) and Bob Portman (R-Ohio) stepping into the "Crossfire" to battle over President Bush's tax proposals (watching a clip of Bush explaining "double taxation," McDermott quips, "Is that 'Saturday Night Live?' ") before Washington Monthly writer Josh Marshall and Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy address the foreign policy conundrum.

These are the kinds of segments that led columnist Art Buchwald to write that "Crossfire" "prides itself on the fact that no guest has ever completed a full sentence on the show." The Morton Auditorium audience laps up the machine gun-paced, multi-voiced conversation.

The last segment ends up being the most entertaining, if only because it brings the best out of Carville. He's infuriated -- at least more than he normally appears to be -- about CBS's plans to produce a reality-based "Beverly Hillbillies."

"Some geniuses think it might be a laugh to plop a family of real hillbillies down in a Beverly Hills mansion and let the cameras roll," Carville fumes. To debate the issue, "Crossfire" trots out Parade magazine contributing editor Sandy Kenyon and former Georgia Rep. Ben Jones. The fact that Jones played "Cooter" on "The Dukes of Hazzard" series in the '80s is not lost on Novak.

"Let me see if I can get this right, Mr. Cooter Jones," he asks, eyebrows arching. "You are upset about the stereotype of hillbillies being perpetuated by CBS, after you did so much [to] perpetuate hillbilly [as] Cooter on 'The Dukes of Hazzard,' where you played a not-so-bright guy, is that right?"

"You never watched the show," Jones suggests.

"I sure didn't," Novak admits.

After Jones defends "The Dukes of Hazzard" as "a Southern show created by Southerners, a wonderful piece of Americana," things devolve a bit when he suddenly boasts "I could care less. I mean [Carville's] a coonass and I'm a redneck."

"Damn proud of it," Carville beams.

Novak then quotes the producer of the new "Beverly Hillbillies" to the effect that "we will accomplish the most if we cast it well with people who respect themselves, but see the humor in themselves. We will end up with a piece that truly has, God forbid, social commentary, and maybe we'll enlighten, that it's not all barefoot hillbillies."

Jones lights up, looking at Carville. "We've got the cast -- me and you!"

This is found treasure for Brandon Briscoe, a second-year law student at GW who is the most loyal of "Crossfire" loyalists, with 100 or so shows under his belt.

"All these newsmakers and decision makers, the parade of influential people coming to campus -- it's too good to pass up," says Briscoe, who has a regular seat reserved for him. "It's a great opportunity to see them in action, and it's also just fun to see the production aspects of the show and what goes on behind the scenes, all the high jinks that go on when the cameras aren't on. That's the best part of the show, and you don't get that watching it on TV."

CROSSFIRE -- Free, but reservations are required. Call 202-994-8266 or e-mail CNN@gwu.edu. Standby tickets are available at the box office beginning at 6 each weeknight. The George Washington University Media & Public Affairs Building, 805 21st St. NW. Metro: Foggy Bottom/GWU.

AFTER THE SHOW

To eat, drink and either anticipate or continue the "Crossfire" debate:

Au Bon Pain: 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-887-9215). French bakery/cafe whose outdoor seating is adjacent to the MPA Building.

Bertucci's Brick Oven Pizza: 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-296-2600). Pizza, pasta and gourmet salads.

Cafe Lombardy (in the Lombardy Hotel): 2019 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-828-2600). Northern Italian bistro.

Capitol Grounds: 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-293-2057). Bagels and coffee.

Froggy Bottom Pub: 2142 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-338-3000). Populist watering hole.

Kinkead's: An American Brasserie: 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-296-7700). If you can't get enough behind-the-scenes action, the kitchen staff is visible on the second floor.

Lindy's Red Lion/Lindy's Bon Apetit: 2040 I St. NW (202-452-0055, 202-785-2766). One's the pub, one's the carryout, and they share the same burger-centric menu, including the Crossfire Burger: a double burger featuring, "on the left," cheddar cheese, jalapeno peppers, lettuce and tomato and, "on the right," lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, topped with a politically correct amount of fried bologna.

Lulu's New Orleans Cafe: 1217 22nd St. NW (202-861-5858). Cajun food, no Carville on the side.

Primi Piatti: 2013 I St. NW (202-223-3600). Upscale Italian.

TGI Friday's: 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-628-8443). American fare.

The topic of online dating draws laughter from the "Crossfire" audience.Tucker Carlson, left, and Paul Begala prepare to host CNN's "Crossfire" at George Washington University.